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“And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl / I know you want it… / I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it… / But you’re a good girl…” Unlike in Thicke’s hit, the “it” youth seeking mentorship want is hopefully not sex. Nonetheless, decent people have long suspected that among more bohemian sorts — actors, musicians, academics, etc — the blurring of lines between mentorship and sexual grooming, coupled with the impulse to save face, risks fostering a climate of sexual abuse. I’ve even heard decent people argue that those who go into bohemian fields ought to know what they’re getting into, and if they’re abused, it’s really their fault.
Decent people don’t want bohemian clergy. Nonetheless, religious callings have more in common with the bohemian than decent people might like to think. It’s appropriate for spiritual mentorship to be intense (possibly even more intense than intellectual or artistic mentorship). It’s normal for charismatic spiritual leaders to attract groupies (also known as disciples). Great good can come from both these dynamics. But also great evil. Decent people are properly sensitive to the great harm false accusations can do, and it feels awful to suspect those called to holiness of perverting these dynamics. Nonetheless, perversion has obviously happened — especially, it seems, in Catholic seminaries.
Sexual exploitation, provided everyone involved is of age, is often not a crime. It may be immoral for mentors to sexually groom their non-minor proteges, it may be against institutional policy to do so, but it’s usually not criminal. Vast amounts of sexual grooming appear to have taken place in America’s Catholic seminaries, especially between the sexual revolution and the 2002 exposure of abuse among Catholic clergy. American seminarians have completed high school, so seminary sexual grooming is unlikely to exploit minors. Rather, it exploits youth eager for mentorship, fostering a culture of sexual predation and duplicity which then makes it all the easier for those who do go on to exploit minors to get away with it.
I attended college for the same reason I imagine many seminarians attend seminary — for deeper education in the transcendent things. While my idea of transcendent things wasn’t focused on religion, or even a classical education, it included my unformed Christian faith. My first real exposure to Evangelical culture came in college. It was a minority culture at my college, but more vibrant than I would have guessed. Even a purely secular college, I found, could still be a place where youth grows in wholesomeness. Granted, youth must be exceedingly careful as well as lucky in order to pull it off. My own interests meant half my friends were Jesus freaks, and the other half were bohemians. Luckily, most bohemians I knew still maintained an affectionate regard for blatant innocence and proved quite easygoing — at times, stunningly courteous — in accommodating my distaste for debauchery. We have some power to make our own luck in these matters, but I had some real dumb luck in my peers, if not my mentors.
Some kids go through their pre-college years with a huge, if invisible, “kick me” sign pasted above their heads. I came to college with a giant, invisible-but-still-flashing-neon “mentor me” sign. Challenges I didn’t recognize at the time hindered my attempts to secure stable mentorship, which provided even more opportunities for would-be mentors to proposition me. To this day, I can’t be sure how many really propositioned me, or whether I missed out on some perfectly innocent mentoring through sheer skittishness. Enough offers involved a bed, though, to make it implausible they all weren’t propositions.
I admit, I wanted “it.” It’s just that the “it” wasn’t sex: it was mentorship, though I wasn’t confident I’d manage to avoid Faustian bargains in my thirst to find it. One missed Faustian bargain began with a plotline straight out of a cheesy romance novel, but that’s a story for another time, a story bohemian enough I knew to keep my guard up. Another vividly memorable miss involved a layman of some elevated authority in my church, and that miss was narrow enough to cause some scandal. I did let my guard down more around a man I imbued with Christian authority than I would have around the more bohemian, and my greater trust was nearly my undoing. If that was my experience at a secular college, how much worse must be possible at Catholic seminaries, where all those in authority over you are presumed to be Christian authorities?
Complicating matters, what counts as sexual grooming in an exploitative relationship overlaps with what would simply be courtship in a more equal relationship. Even among those who manage to remain virgins until marriage, courtship typically entails the bolder lover persuading the shyer lover to shed sexual boundaries, much as a groomer does to his victims. While those called to a life of celibacy ought to know they’re not called to courtship, mentors often do favor their proteges by treating them more as “equals”, and when a man has you convinced enough you’re his equal, it becomes easier to forget the real power he has over you if he comes “courting”. Is the story of Abelard and Héloïse a tragic story of doomed love? Or is it a story of mentorship gone horribly awry?
“But Héloïse was a woman. You’re a woman. Aren’t you missing the fact that sexual abuse among Catholics is usually male on male?” No, I’m not. But I imagine young women seeking mentorship in male-dominated fields risk their chastity in ways not too dissimilar from how young gay men seeking mentorship in male-dominated fields risk theirs. Furthermore, it’s difficult to insist that spiritual formation take place without mentorship. While Christian discipleship means following Christ, not merely someone purportedly speaking for Christ, the body Christ left for His disciples on earth is the church, and the more hierarchical the church, the more the line blurs between following Christ and following your superiors in the hierarchy:
If your superiors in the hierarchy are themselves sound members of the body of Christ, this blurred line might prove more helpful than harmful. But what if they’re not?
I have seen the following quoted more than once in recent days:
Important clues exist in the genealogy of abuse. I have been able to trace victims of clergy and bishop abuse to the third generation.
Often, the history of clergy abusers reveals that the priest himself was abused – sometimes by a priest. The abuse may have occurred when the priest was a child, but not necessarily.
Sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or young priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are in line also for recommendations and advancement.
The dynamic is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women, too, are bound together by draconian links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the American hierarchy and the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships.
Secrecy flourishes, like mushrooms on a dank dung pile, even among good men in possession of the facts of the dynamic, but who cannot speak lest they violate the Scarlet Bond.
While those with a duty to report criminal abuse become accessories to the crime if they fail to report it, complicity in abuse among Catholic clergy appears to have gone as far as it did not just because some reprobates kept each other’s dirty criminal secrets, but because clergy, in general, were keeping each other’s dirty secrets, period.
The nasty dirty sex secrets most commonly kept among the nominally celibate probably aren’t crimes. Still, keeping them secret fosters an environment of looking the other way, even when actual crime is involved. Moreover, when would-be mentors sexually exploit their younger disciples, even if most only exploit disciples above the age of consent, it makes it all the easier for those who do exploit the under-aged to get away with it.
I hear that, since 2002, the worst lechery in the seminaries has been mitigated. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, if it takes decades for a church to grow past such malformation (literally, mal-formation). Clergy formed in a culture where lechery is an open secret can’t be expected to change their ways as soon as the worst lechery is stopped. Those in the know are habituated to keeping each other’s dirty secrets. Those not in the know are habituated to giving more benefit of the doubt than they probably should.
Many might be half in the know, hearing of some allegedly great scandal through the grapevine, but not knowing with confidence whether the scandal is worse than relatively minor scandals they’ve personally witnessed. Being more mortified by one’s own sins than one is by rumors of others’ sins is usually the right thing to do. Moreover, because the sin we personally witness is much more vivid to us than that which we don’t, it’s easy to wonder whether scandals elsewhere are no worse than the scandal we’ve witnessed personally:
“Oh, that seminary. Ridden with scandal nobody likes to talk about.” “Huh. Well, over here, it’s an open secret the hermeneutics professor sometimes hooks up with the religious history professor. I guess we’re a seminary ridden with scandal nobody likes to talk about, too. How bad, really, can the other place be?…”
How much worse can the scandal we don’t know about be than the scandal we do? Decent people aren’t usually much surprised to discover the scandalous behavior of bohemians is even worse than they suspected. Decent people ought to be outraged, though, by news that scandals among the clergy are worse than they suspected. Outraged, but perhaps not wholly shocked, since the blurred lines leading to a scandal in bohemia needn’t be so very different from the blurred lines leading to scandal among the pious.Published in